By Darsella Vigil, Elizabeth Holcombe, and Adrianna Kezar
For more than two decades, colleges and universities have seen considerable increases in enrollment for students of color. However, equity gaps persist at alarming rates between these students and their white counterparts. Ongoing health, racial, and economic crises—the COVID-19 pandemic, the murders of unarmed Black Americans at the hands of police, the Capitol insurrection—have only further exacerbated these inequities and underscored the critical role higher education plays in either addressing or overlooking systemic racism, both on campus and in the broader community. Institutions and leaders must substantially transform to address these persistent inequities and find practical solutions for complex societal challenges.
Building off of ACE’s prior work on shared forms of leadership and leadership for racial healing, we recently introduced an innovative approach to leadership that addresses our most pressing equity challenges—we call it shared equity leadership. Shared equity leadership (SEL) is a collective process that makes diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) everyone’s work rather than siloing it in a single office or in one leader’s portfolio. This form of leadership is both individual and collective and has three main components—a personal journey toward critical consciousness for those building a commitment to equity work, a set of values that undergird the work, and practices that leaders enact collectively. The strategies we outlined in the report were developed and supported by extensive interviews with more than 60 leaders at eight campuses.
Our research offers many lessons for leaders who are interested in distributing leadership for equity more broadly across their campuses. We highlight a few lessons here, along with some questions for leaders to reflect on:
Intentionally recruit leaders with a diverse set of perspectives and expertise to be part of the shared equity leadership effort.
Leadership teams are only as good as the individuals who get to have a seat at the table. One of the major benefits of shared leadership is that by including more people in the practice of leadership, more varied types of expertise are brought to a particular problem or issue than if a single leader worked alone.
To be most effective, groups of leaders should include both those who have experienced inequity and those who understand inequity’s historic and structural roots. Institutions must be intentional about hiring diverse leaders with DEI experience and the skill, commitment, and ability to build teams or groups that include a diverse array of skillsets, experiences, and strengths. The benefits of shared equity leadership will not be realized if a majority of leaders on the team share similar identities and experiences or draw from a limited repertoire of values and practices.
- Reflect on the identities, experiences, and perspectives currently on your leadership teams. Do they represent the student body? What identities are not represented?
- Which SEL values and practices are represented in the individual strengths on your team?
Support your fellow leaders on their personal journey and create opportunities to foster learning and development of critical consciousness.
What is unique about the SEL model is that it allows for, and in fact encourages, leaders from various backgrounds to enter this work. At the heart of SEL is the notion that all leaders are on a personal journey toward critical consciousness, in which they develop a deeper and broader understanding of inequitable structures and systems and their positions within them.
Leaders can begin this journey from many different entry points as long as they are committed to the work and their own ongoing learning, which can take place in various spaces and different ways. While leaders must commit to doing their own internal work, institutions play a critical role in supporting the progress of this journey. Institutions must create and foster brave spaces where authentic learning and uncomfortable conversations can take place.
- What spaces or moments have been most critical for your own personal journey in cementing your commitment to equity? What has helped you develop a more critical consciousness around issues of DEI?
- How can you intentionally foster your fellow leaders’ growth and development?
- What DEI professional development opportunities are already offered on your campus or in your community? How might you leverage or build on these programs to support your colleagues’ journeys?
- Who can you turn to for support, both in helping others on their journeys and in continuing on your own?
Model shared equity leadership values and practices so others can see what they look like in practice.
Leaders in our study expressed how crucial it was for their colleagues to model aspects of SEL to demonstrate real-life examples of values and practices that are often counter to prevailing norms in higher education.
For example, while some of the SEL values may be more typically associated with leadership in our society (e.g., courage, creativity and innovation), many of them are not (e.g., vulnerability, love and care, humility). Seeing leaders model these values helped their teammates feel comfortable embodying and enacting these values themselves. Similarly, leaders modeling certain practices, like questioning or disrupting traditional ways of operating, helped colleagues see how they might work to dismantle inequitable structures on their campuses in concrete, manageable ways.
- What values and practices do you feel most confident about modeling for your colleagues?
- Who can you look to on your team to model the values and practices that you feel you most need to develop?
- Can you think of a time you saw another leader model one of these values and practices? What was that experience like?
Provide support structures that will develop leaders’ orientation toward the broader leadership collective.
Leading collectively or collaboratively will likely be a new experience for many, so intentional steps must be taken to promote a more shared approach to leadership.
For example, senior leaders must ensure that faculty and staff feel comfortable and supported participating in meetings with those who have more positional or hierarchical power. Senior leaders may need to rethink how they incentivize and reward work so that the efforts of multiple leaders can be appropriately recognized. Similarly, division of labor and responsibility for DEI tasks may need to be shared across multiple units or divisions. Leaders will need to think creatively about how to manage this complexity and how to help their colleagues understand these new ways of working together.
- What sorts of processes must be changed in order to support a more collective approach to leadership?
- How could meetings, decision-making, or agenda-setting look different?
Reward and incentivize leaders for their time doing shared equity leadership work.
Too often, women and people of color are expected to perform significant DEI work on campus for little or no compensation. Additionally, institutions often struggle to reward or formally recognize collaborative or team-based work, signaling that the work is not valued.
Institutions must formalize and embed structures that reward past and current DEI work generally, and shared equity leadership specifically. This could include: (1) building DEI time allocation into leaders’ roles and appropriately compensating leaders for their time and work; (2) offering professional development credit that will count toward advancing tenure and promotion; and/or (3) hosting awards ceremonies honoring the work.
- Which existing rewards structures or incentives could easily be tweaked to account for shared equity leadership work?
- How does your institution recognize and reward collaborative work? How might this be improved?
For far too long, institutions have espoused values of DEI and made promises to diversify campuses and promote more equitable outcomes for students of color, but failed to follow through with actions that truly dismantle the structures and systems that perpetuate inequities. Shared equity leadership offers institutions an opportunity to take action by drawing upon the skills and strengths of multiple individuals rather than relying on the limited perspective of a single leader or office.
Individual leaders can each leverage their own strengths while also benefiting from the complementary strengths of their fellow leaders and working together to make systemic, widespread change. The recommendations shared here offer leaders important practical examples and questions to help them lean into their discomfort, build introspection and empathy, and develop the courage to have challenging conversations. Our report provides many more insights and examples of this form of leadership, and future work will highlight different aspects of team formation and development, implementation challenges, and more. We hope that shared equity leadership provides institutions with a bold model that can transform institutions, improve equity outcomes, and overcome ever-changing social and political challenges.